The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The story of modern medicine and bioethics—and, indeed, race relations—is refracted beautifully, and movingly.”—Entertainment Weekly


NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • Entertainment Weekly • O: The Oprah Magazine • NPR • Financial Times • New York • Independent (U.K.) • Times (U.K.) • Publishers Weekly • Library Journal • Kirkus Reviews • Booklist • Globe and Mail

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine: The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. 

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. 

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? 

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Book Reviews


Well written but hard to read3 star

Very interesting but ultimately depressing .35


Great5 star

This book is excellent,we were forced to read it for our 10th grade book but once I began reading just the introduction,I rushed through all of the chapters in three nights!!?!55


The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks5 star

Great book. So many ethics and science55

Happy customer 😀

So bad1 star

One of the most boring books I’ve ever read15


Interesting!5 star

I read it twice. Once for my women’s health class and the other for my bioethical issues in health ed class. Both times I found it equally as interesting. It’s not just about science. Its about the actual person behind the science.55


Fascinating book5 star

I don’t normally choose non-fiction, but this book caught my attention. Rebecca Skloot hooks you with an introduction to Henrietta, her family and an intense lesson in biology. Henrietta and Deborah’s family history kept my attention. In addition, I learned an awful lot about tissue, cell lines and the blurred lines between rights to our body and the enormous benefits of scientific research. My heart goes out to Henrietta’s family - especially for Deborah’s awareness of all the good that HeLa cells have done and her commitment to ensuring public awareness of her mother’s contributions. Well done to Rebecca for telling a story that desperately needed telling.55


Very Educational!5 star

Henrietta contributed so much to science with her cancerous cells! It’s amazing to know that they are still being used today! What I enjoyed is the education of science by learning about cell culture in this book, the education of informed consent, the education of Black people and experiments in America’s medical history. I loved how the book also discusses Henrietta’s Family and her family history. I wish she knew how much she helped medical science so much! Very great book!55

Fire Trustee

Wonderful read!!5 star

I became aware of this book when Oprah appeared on "The Talk" 2 days ago. I downloaded it yesterday and read it beginning to end in barely 24 hours! I couldn't put it down!! Can hardly wait to watch the movie adaptation Saturday evening! Very intriguing, informative, and thought-provoking!55


Fascinating Read5 star

I bought this book while I was a patient at Hopkins. I heard about the story on local news and was interested to learn who she was and how important HeLa cells are to the world of medicine. Thank you Henrietta- you in essence helped save my life.55


great read5 star

I'm in high school and this was one of the books I was required to read. I absolutely fell in love with it and suggest it to everyone i know.55

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